A visit to the Nantucket Whaling Museum (Part 1 of 2)

Guest post written by Rachael Utting, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, whose project is entitled ‘Collecting Leviathan: curiosity, exchange and the British Southern Whale Fishery (1775-1860)’.

During my month-long stay in America on a research visit looking at British whaling log books and journals in American collections, I was lucky enough to spend a week on Nantucket Island. This former whaling colony is an hour by ferry from Cape Cod and nowadays is a very exclusive holiday destination.  I was housed by the Nantucket Historical Association at Thomas Macy House, 99 Main Street, used by the NHA as accommodation for staff and visiting researchers (this offsets the astronomical price of hotel accommodation on the islands which would be prohibitive for most visiting researchers!). Dating from the 1700s, this former whaling captain’s house is complete with artefacts and paintings belonging to previous owners and functions as a ‘living museum’. This means that tours visit on weekdays and house residents have to scurry away and hide, and you can’t put anything on the furniture.

The NHA, founded in 1894, manages five historic buildings on Nantucket Island including the Whaling Museum. This was established in 1930 on the site of the Hadwen & Barney Oil & Candle Factory built in 1847, and was based on the whaling collections of local congregational minister Edward F. Sanderson. The museum opened in its current extended guise in 2005 with eleven exhibition spaces dedicated to Nantucket history, scrimshaw and whaling, with a central exhibition hall housing a 46ft sperm whale skeleton from a stranding on Nantucket in 1996, and a huge sperm whale jaw bone collected in the Pacific in 1865.

The 18ft jaw (from an enormous 80ft bull whale) was so impressive that showman BT Barnum tried to purchase it. The visit to the museum was extremely relevant for my work on the collecting activities of whalers because the museum has a permanent exhibition showcasing the many ‘curios’ that American whalers brought home during the nineteenth century. These were donated to the Nantucket Atheneum, an institution incorporating a private library, museum and philosophical society founded in 1834. Such was the diversity of the museum collection, a visitor in 1843 stated, “I can not [sic] stop to a enumerate even a specimen of the almost infamy of curiosities, natural and artificial here deposited by the whalers.”

The Atheneum museum collections were largely destroyed in a fire in 1846. When the remaining artefacts outgrew their home, they were donated to the newly formed Nantucket Historical Association in 1905. What this collection (roughly 400 artefacts; see examples below) demonstrates is that American whalers were collecting widely. As whaling ships of this era had international crews, with many Americans manning British Southern Whale Fishery vessels, there is nothing to suggest their British crewmates were not following suit. If this is true, and British South Seas whalers were collecting, donating and selling their collections and, as I believe, were a significant acquisition source of island material culture (particularly from the Pacific Islands), then this is not reflected within British museum displays. Despite having a significant whaling economy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain has no dedicated whaling museums and whalers have been largely ignored as a collecting phenomenon. The Nantucket Whaling Museum exhibition proves that they were perfectly placed to collect and that there was a flourishing market for their souvenirs. This included the Atheneum, private Island collectors and also mercantile ventures such as Mrs Polly Burnell’s shell shop, run from her Nantucket home from 1831-1854.

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Advert for Polly Burnell’s shell shop, The Inquirer and Mirror, 8/4/1854.

My weekdays were spent visiting the NHA Research Library attached to the Island’s Quaker church. I read five logbooks and one journal during the week, scouring them for evidence of collecting. These were all vessels belonging to the British Southern Whale Fishery and registered in Britain, several of them with Nantucket captains, which would explain how they ended up in the Island archive. Within these fascinating documents I encountered hostage situations between crew and Islanders, the gruesome massacre of 10 crewmen at the Marquesas Islands, a meeting with John Adams (Bounty mutineer) at Pitcairn, evidence of beachcombers on the Galápagos Islands and an apprentice boy who tried to kill himself twice by throwing himself overboard. Most relevant for my work was the journal of Dr Eldred Fysh, surgeon on-board the Coronet 1837-1839. Fysh documented his interactions with the Islanders across Indonesia purchasing shells, tools and live birds. The crew collected weaponry in New Ireland and also animals. What happened to Fysh’s acquisitions is a mystery; he returned to his native Norfolk and died in 1849, aged just 37.

My investigations are ongoing!

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Drawing from the Journal of Dr Eldred Fysh on-board the Whaling ship Coronet 1837-1839.
© Nantucket Historical Association.

Written by Rachael Utting, edited by Jack Lowe.

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